The Kennedys won’t be watching this one on movie night.
The new historical drama “Chappaquiddick” is far from a love letter to the famous family. It paints them as a hollow dynasty of pretty faces hiding behind a powerful name, while real men of intellect and influence puppeteer their every move. Camelot, it’s not.
And, as this terrific movie suggests, the American people fall for their polished BS every time.
The story told here, the Chappaquiddick Incident, was a new kind of tragedy for the clan. Unlike the assassinations of Robert and John F. Kennedy, this was a disaster of a Kennedy’s own making.
In July 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a former Bobby Kennedy campaign staffer, drowned when Sen. Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove their car off a bridge on the titular Massachusetts island. The bozo didn’t report the accident for ten hours. He booked a hotel room — and got brunch.
In this riveting telling, the senator — helped by his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and US Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) — then tries to manipulate the tale to paint himself as the real victim to keep his own presidential ambitions alive. He never reaches the White House, but, being a Kennedy, he sticks around in the Senate for another 40 years.
At first, director John Curran treats this sad chapter of history in a somber, straightforward manner. The color palette is muted and pale for a summer beach town, and the mood is anything but fancy-free. You may start to cringe when Teddy is treated too sympathetically. He frequently whines that he’s living in the shadow of both of his dead brothers. And he’s detested by his father, Joseph, who’s played as a near-death crank by Bruce Dern.
Then “Chappaquiddick” becomes an unexpected hoot.
Locked in a room in the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port, Mass., manse, a group of government movers and shakers rip every dufus move Teddy makes: Leaking a false story to a New York Times journalist that he had a concussion and was treated with sedatives (he’d be dead). Wearing an unneeded neck brace to the girl’s funeral (poor me!). Giving the press a written statement filled with inaccuracies (willing self-destruction). The drama turns into a farce.
The screenwriters, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, have said their aim was not to have a political slant, but to honor the late Kopechne, who was an afterthought in the media at the time. The duo has indeed honored her, and in so doing has definitely given their movie a political slant. This film is very obviously anti-Ted Kennedy.
For example, it suggests the senator may have been drunk, a claim he always denied. And it posits that maybe he didn’t try to save the woman at all, even though Kennedy said he dove down repeatedly to no avail.
Clarke, a marvelous actor, gives a perfect performance as the eventual Lion of the Senate. He never becomes too likable, too villainous, too clownish or too reverent — his human Teddy is a masterful blend of all of the above. Plus, he really looks like the guy.
When Teddy gives his speech to the nation in the end, explaining his actions, Clarke, in an Oscar-worthy moment, is so compassionate and sincere that your heart goes out to the man. Who wouldn’t re-elect this dude who pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident that he caused? And that is the whole point of this shrewdly crafted movie.